champion awards

Each year the PA Wilds Center recognizes individuals, groups, organizations, communities, and businesses that in the last year have made significant contributions to help grow and sustainably develop the outdoor recreation economy and nature tourism in the PA Wilds by marrying economic development and conservation goals.

These prestigious awards are typically presented at the Center’s dinner. However, due to COVID-19, the 2021 awards were celebrated in small groups, at the community level with the award winners, county commissioners, and legislators.

Congratulations to the 2021 PA Wilds Champions!

Award Categories

Click on the Award titles listed below to jump to that section.


The PA Wilds Artisan of the Year Champion Award honors a PA Wilds Juried Artisan who has gone above and beyond to use their medium and creativity to promote the region or help advance The Wilds Cooperative of PA.

Bill Crowell of Lock Haven, PA (Clinton County)

A juried artisan in the Wilds Cooperative of PA (WCO), Bill Crowell uses his creative photography and graphic design skills both professionally and personally to celebrate the PA Wilds region and the beauty, bounty and rural traditions the region is known for. Through his business, Budget Artist, Crowell works with clients ranging from individual families and local sports leagues to those the size of Lock Haven University, documenting the lives and special moments for locals and area visitors. He can often be found attending community events with his camera or delving into creative projects for the community. During the 2020 COVID shutdown, Crowell embarked on a series of “Porchraits” that featured families on their porches surrounded by various household items to comically reflect how they were surviving the pandemic. Previously the photo editor for the local newspaper, Bill has a knack for photographing people and bringing local events and scenery to life. He has won several awards for his photography and graphic design work and often donates use of his photos to local businesses and organizations — such as Millbrook Playhouse, the Clinton County Visitors Bureau, Downtown Lock Haven Inc. and PA Wilds Center — in an effort to help promote the area as a place for visitors and residents.


The PA Wilds Business of the Year Champion Award honors a new or existing business owner that has taken bold steps to grow their business in a way that embodies what it means to marry conservation and economic development and to offer an authentic experience or product to visitors and residents.

Wolfe's General Store of Slate Run, PA (Lycoming County)

Tom and Debbie Finkbiner owned and operated the Wolfe’s General Store at Slate Run, PA on Pine Creek for 45 years and recently sold it to a local couple, Kim and Tom Kozlowski, who will continue to operate both the general store and the famous Slate Run Tackle Shop. The Tackle Shop became a very strong asset for trout fishermen who were attracted from all over the Eastern USA. Tom helped to lead the citizen support for the formal designation of portions of Pine Creek and several other tributary streams as Wild Trout Exceptional Value stream by the PA Fish and Boat Commission. Deb operated and managed the General Store offering all the supplies that campers and fishermen and visitors needed. Together they were a treasure-trove of important information and help for visitors and for input to Township and Lycoming County Planning deliberations. They own a home in the Pine Creek Valley just north of Slate Run and continue to help out at the store. The economic impact for the Pine Creek Valley and beyond has been enhanced by the Finkbiners’ enterprise. Tom has advocated to develop a section of Pine Creek now known as “the stretch“ in which trophy trout are stocked in addition to PA Fish and Boat Commission stockings. This has attracted fishermen from all over the country. Tom has formed a 501(c)(3) organization which fishermen can donate to and their mission is to stock above average German brown trout several times during the season.


The PA Wilds Event of the Year Champion Award recognizes a festival, race, art show or other local or regional event in the PA Wilds which through its quality, authenticity and use of the PA Wilds brand has become a regional attraction that is having a positive economic and social impact on the area.

LH JAMS Festival of Lock Haven, PA (Clinton County)

The LH JAMS Festival (Lock Haven Jams and Art on Main Street Festival) in just a few years has fast become an exciting asset to the unique stable of festivals enticing music lovers and festival goers to visit Clinton County and the PA Wilds. The LH JAMS committee, partnering with Downtown Lock Haven and Lock Haven University, works year-round to keep the mix of art and entertainment fresh and exciting. It’s all about atmosphere, an exciting experience that leaves with you and draws you back the next year. Exceptional musicians and bands, plein air painting, fine art, crafts, and outdoor cafe-style dining, all on Main Street featuring two stages where the music is constant. It’s a full afternoon of music, art, and entertainment that flows into the evening where jazz and blues fans enjoy combos playing in intimate settings at local establishments, like the Broken Axe, Avenue 209, Odd Fellas, and the patio at Stella A’s.


The PA Wilds Best Brand Ambassador Award honors an organization or individual who has made significant contributions to promoting and developing the PA Wilds brand through logo use, place name recognition, branded product development, storytelling, event or experience packaging or similar efforts.

Dave Conklin and the Wilds Sonshine Factory of Kane, PA (McKean County)

With the creation of The Wilds Sonshine Factory, not only has Dave Conklin incorporated the PA Wilds brand directly into his business; he has trademarked it so that Sonshine will be exclusively grown and produced within the PA Wilds region. The Wilds Sonshine Factory tied the patent for their innovative distilled product to the PA Wilds brand and through a licensing contract will be giving a portion of every bottle sold to support the PA Wilds Center’s nonprofit mission in the landscape. A true PA Wilds ambassador, Conklin has spoken about the importance of the PA Wilds on the radio and TV, to elected officials, to other business people and on stage at Public Officials Day. Although “Sonshine” is a distilled product, it is not a typical distillery. The building will serve as an agricultural education center, combining efforts and partnerships from Allegheny Hardwoods Utilization Group (AHUG), Penn State Outreach and Penn State Extension; and the McKean, Elk and Warren County Conservation Districts.


The PA Wilds Outstanding Leader Champion Award honors a person, organization, business or elected official that has used their platform to advocate for outdoor recreation economic growth in the PA Wilds as a way to create jobs, diversify local economies, inspire stewardship and improve quality of life.

Julie Brennan of Flemington, PA (Clinton County)

Julie Brennan has held the post of Clinton County Tourism Director for six years. As a tourism and outdoor recreation advocate, she routinely promotes the PA Wilds. Julie is an active participant in many boards and committees designed to help the county thrive as a destination and a great place to live. Her advocacy on behalf of the Bald Eagle Valley Trail — a planned extension of the major Pine Creek Rail Trail from Jersey Shore to Lock Haven — led to the commitment of $20,000 annually from hotel tax revenue for trail maintenance. Julie advocated for and secured PA Wilds “Elk Scenic Drive” signage for the Route 120 Corridor from Lock Haven to Emporium. In addition, Julie has been closely involved with several events critical to the regional economy, including the LH JAMS Festival and several trail races such as the world-class Boulder Beast, Hyner Challenge, Great Island Triathlon, and Frozen Snot. When all events were cancelled due to COVID, instead of taking a break, she morphed her weekly newsletter into a daily “Moving Forward” update that gave vital information on available programs to assist cultural, hospitality, tourism and other businesses and organizations with their economic survival. It collected federal, state, and local program information and guidance into one place for a convenient easy read. Now that things are opening back up for tourism, she is producing both newsletters.


The PA Wilds Conservation Stewardship Champion Award honors the best practices and achievements of an individual, business or organization that demonstrates a commitment to conservation and outstanding resource stewardship of the natural and cultural assets in the PA Wilds.

Don Schmidt of DuBois, PA (Clearfield County)

A retired mechanical engineer, Don Schmidt is a longtime volunteer for conservation organizations such as Pennsylvania Wildlife Habitat and others. Don works undetected on many of his projects, which can range from spending a day in Quehanna Wild Area with a small group replacing and cleaning Wood Duck and Bluebird boxes on frozen marshes to participating in highway litter cleanups. Don has taken on the responsibility of maintaining an American Chestnut planting site that was done in 2014. Twice a year he trims the overgrowth within the 1-1/4 acre site that has 525 original trees. The site is maintained entirely by weed trimmer as the terrain is far too rough to trim by any other means. He personally supplies the fuel for the trimmers and pays for all the other supplies.


The PA Wilds Inspiring Youth Champion Award honors an adult or youth who has made outstanding contributions to involve young people in the work to grow the region’s outdoor recreation economy and to conserve its unparalleled natural and cultural resource assets.

Paul Lilja and the Black Forest Conservation Association of Coudersport, PA (Potter County)

Paul Lilja and the Black Forest Conservation Association have been organizing a week-long Junior Conservation School for over 40 years. This week-long summer camp gets students involved in a wide array of outdoor skills classes and conservation lessons throughout the region. Home base for campers is outside of Coudersport at the Black Forest Conservation Club. The week consists of field trips to locations across the region to learn about conservation issues and conservation careers. One location is Western Pennsylvania Conservancy’s Bennett Branch Forest where they learn about acid mine discharge and its treatment.


The PA Wilds Great Design Champion Award honors an individual, business or organization that has done outstanding work to preserve, protect or enhance an area’s rural community character and to promote the use and understanding of the PA Wilds Design Guide.

Mickayla Poland of Saint Marys, PA (Elk County)

Mickayla Poland, owner of PA Made LLC, is a graphic designer and painter who has embraced local wildlife in her art. She is known for her love for Pennsylvania, Elk County, and the PA Wilds because her business is all about supporting and showcasing subjects from the Commonwealth. Much of her original artwork features the wildlife of the area. She has also worked with the Elk County Conservation District on projects and works with local children to help them promote their community. For example, she recently completed a series of storm drain murals for the Elk County Conservation that will help educate people about the importance of keeping stormwater and runoff water clean.


The PA Wilds Great Places Champion Award honors innovative asset development and promotion that have worked together to create an excellent new or revamped sustainable tourism destination within the PA Wilds.

The Trails at Jakes Rocks (Warren County)

Located on the Allegheny National Forest (ANF), the Trails at Jakes Rocks currently provides in excess of 30 miles of trail that is optimized for mountain bikes, hiker friendly, and professionally designed and constructed. This system has grown to be the single largest continually-operating outdoor recreation asset within the ANF. It provides unique outdoor recreation opportunities for mountain bikers, hikers and trail runners of all ages and ability levels. US Forest Service (USFS) data collection indicates that the TAJR attracted in excess of 15,000 trail users in 2020 alone. The success of the project in attracting new visitors to the region has supported business growth in Warren and McKean Counties as well as facility improvement investments by the USFS. The collaboration between numerous state, federal and local organizations and entities to develop the roughly $3 Million in capital investment is unique to this region. Administrative and “boots on the ground” partners involved in the development of Jakes Rocks include the Warren County Development Association; USFS, ANF; Pennsylvania Kinzua Pathways; Leadership Warren County; Warren County Commissioners; Northern Allegheny Mountain Bike Association; Western New York Mountain Bike Association; and Northwest Commission. Financing partners include Appalachian Regional Commission, the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Warren County Corporate and Foundation community.


Each year, the PA Wilds Planning Team honors an individual who has made exemplary contributions to the work of the PA Wilds Planning Team and the regional revitalization effort it helps advance.

This year, the PA Wilds Planning Team voted to honor two women who passed away in 2021 who were incredible champions of the PA Wilds. In addition to their award, the Team is donating $150 in each of their names to causes they cared about.

Lisa Bainey

November 6, 1958 ~ July 16, 2021

Lisa Bainey, 62, of Emporium, PA, had an extensive career as an educator and park manager with DCNR State Parks. Many of us in the PA Wilds knew her as the manager for Sinnemahoning State Park, a star attraction in the region, where she guided the construction of the world class Wildlife Watching Center and a multi-million dollar project to repair the George B. Stevenson Dam and ensure safe water recreation opportunities at the park for decades to come.

Lisa was a lover of the outdoors, an avid naturalist, and competitive canoeist. She loved hunting, fishing, gardening, scuba diving, biking, hiking, and skiing. She enjoyed spending time with close friends and family. Lisa was a member of the United States Canoe Association, National Audubon Society, Pennsylvania Parks And Forest Foundation, Bucktail Watershed Association, and The Rotary Club Of Emporium.

Lisa was a huge ambassador for the PA Wilds effort; she often spoke about how the PA Wilds brand captured our region’s identity and built pride of place. She was one of the first to use the PA Wilds brand to promote free “Women in the Wilds” events that helped connect women to the outdoors, and for many other outdoor programs.

Lisa’s spunk and energy were contagious. We are grateful that her voice is preserved in the video that West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund made about the PA Wilds: A donation is being made in Lisa’s name to the PA Parks and Forests Foundation.

Thank you, Lisa, for your positive and inclusive outlook and incredible contributions to the PA Wilds region!

Helene Nawrocki

November 10, 1950 ~ May 13, 2021

Helene Nawrocki, 70, was an accomplished nurse and educator who moved to Potter County in 1996 and served for many years as the Executive Director of the Potter County Education Council (PCEC), a longtime partner in the PA Wilds work.

Under her leadership, PCEC housed two early staff positions devoted to the PA Wilds effort. The PA Wilds was in a fledgling state back then, and Helene earned the nickname “Mama Bear” for how she protected the work at a critical stage so it could grow in new directions. The PA Wilds positions she oversaw, and contractors who worked with them, later went on to help found the PA Wilds Center, the nonprofit that now coordinates the PA Wilds effort.

Helene was also an accomplished herbalist and artisan in the Wilds Cooperative of PA. Many people loved her tinctures and salves, which she sold through her small business, Bear Mountain Herbs.

Helene was a member of the Genesee Library Book Club, the Wellsville Garden Club, and the Hooterville quilting group.

A donation is being made in Helene’s name to the Elk County Community Foundation for the Potter County Education Council Fund.

Thank you Helene, for your wonderful care and leadership in the PA Wilds effort!

For more information about the PA Wilds Champion Awards, click here.